Peshawar: Slowly, Ziarat Bibi recalled the last words she spoke to her son, her pain seeming to fill the dimly-lit radio studio.
“He was preparing for his exam. I told him to pick up his books,” she said, as transmitters beamed her grief to listeners across northwest Pakistan.
A Taliban bomb killed her son before he took his exam. She has not been able to touch his books since.
Bibi is one of many bereaved mothers sharing their stories on a Pashto-language radio show aimed at undercutting support for the Taliban in their heartlands along the rugged frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s weak civilian government, a US ally often derided as inept and corrupt, is struggling to defeat the insurgency and largely failing to win hearts and minds.
State-run radio spent years issuing dry updates on the prime minister’s schedule while the Taliban broadcast hit lists and fiery recruitment calls from dozens of FM stations, some hidden in the back of a donkey cart.
Alarmed at the success of hardline propaganda, veteran Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Gul decided to try something different: a mix of reports and live debates designed to get people thinking critically about militancy.
One of his shows is called The Dawn and the other The Voice of Peace. They are an hour long and run back to back. New transmitters funded by the United States and Japan are about to start beaming them out across the mountains.
Recent topics have covered how to respond if Al Qaida members show up on your doorstep, whether polio vaccination campaigns are run by the CIA and if suicide bombs killing Muslims are justified.
Pashtun tribal elders, clerics, activists, and officials hold debates and listeners are invited to call in.
A recent show on whether religious leaders were doing enough to promote peace got more than 80 calls.
Taliban hit lists
It wasn’t always like that. When Gul first started the shows in 2009, people were too scared to talk.
The army had just pushed back Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah, nicknamed Mullah Radio for his broadcasts, from the Swat Valley northwest of Islamabad, after he had advanced to within 100 km of the capital.
Fazlullah used his FM radio to issue calls for holy war, to denounce polio vaccination as a Western plot and to threaten those who dared stand up to him.
“Everyone would want to listen to the militants’ broadcasts to make sure his or her name was not on the hit list,” the United Nations noted in a report.
But Gul thought the radio could provide a unique opportunity for people living in the shadow of daily violence to tackle subjects ordinarily taboo.
He started off providing information about flood relief and gradually expanded the shows to include stories like Bibi’s.
Gul wants more than sympathy. He wants his Pashtun listeners to start thinking critically about their beliefs and traditions after years of being bombarded with pro-Taliban propaganda.
“The wave of terrorism forced people into silence,” said Gul. “In this society you are not encouraged to ask questions.”
When he recently ran a programme about the ancient Pashtun tradition of giving refuge, the studio’s ancient, beige telephone lit up.
Hundreds of foreign fighters claimed refuge with Pashtun tribesmen on the Pakistani side of the border when US forces attacked Al Qaida bases in Afghanistan. Tradition demands a Pashtun protect whoever asks for refuge, known as “panah”, with his life.
Presenters asked listeners what they would do if a stranger showed up.
Every caller proudly defended the Pashtun tradition. But some also suggested criminals or traitors should be denied refuge or that tribal elders should decide difficult cases.
In the studio, where a dim bulb shines on old decorations drooping on the walls, presenter Ali Asghar pushed listeners further. He sometimes puts on a yokel’s accent as his character “Cousin Ali” to talk comically about sensitive topics.
“What shall we do if a foreigner is involved?” he asked. “What if the government of Pakistan is against that foreigner?”
The phone rang.
“We should not give panah to a thief, a traitor or someone who has negative designs against us,” said the caller.
It’s not just militants who are challenged. State broadcaster Radio Pakistan carries Gul’s shows but that doesn’t save officials from an occasional public pasting.
During an August show, angry callers berated a senior policeman in the studio for corruption and complained police were discriminating against Pashtuns.
“Were those real callers?” the police, Asif Iqbal, asked before ducking out as the show finished.
In other shows, callers criticised officials over paltry payments for people wounded or bereaved by bombs.
“The blood of a Pashtun is really cheap and no one cares about us,” a man wounded by a bomb told an official.
Producers say the voice of a bereaved mother or wounded civilian is more effective than just denouncing the bombings. They’re planning a regular “Victims’ Voices” segment to highlight the violence.
That was Osama Bin Laden’s nightmare. Papers retrieved from his compound show he feared the Taliban’s bloody bombings were costing Al Qaida support.
“It would lead to us winning several battles while losing the war,” a worried Bin Laden said of the killing of Muslims, according to a transcript of his notes published by the US-based Combating Terrorism Center.
“The media shall demonstrate to the people that we are the ones fighting the government and killing the Muslims.”
Who is listening?
It’s hard to accurately measure the impact of Gul’s radio shows. Radio Pakistan’s antiquated transmitters only reach parts of the border areas. Some of its towers date back to 1948. One was blown up.
But by the end of this year, the United States and Japan will have erected three powerful new transmitters that will double Radio Pakistan’s range. For the first time, it will cover the entire country, even Al Qaida strongholds like North Waziristan on the Afghan border.
In a Reuters survey of 20 people in Peshawar, the traffic-choked provincial capital dominated by a massive brick fort, 17 people had not heard of the shows, two liked them and one thought they were propaganda.
Listener Hazrat Rahman said the shows were a good antidote to the old Taliban programming. But the government wasn’t solving the problems journalists highlighted, he said.
His complaint cuts to the heart of Pakistan’s problem. Citizens may dislike the Taliban, but the government won’t win loyalty until it starts delivering services and security.
“Sometimes the shows raise very genuine issues,” Rahman said. “[But] I have never seen the government take notice of their reports.”